The Sofa / The Departure, Sadler's Wells, London

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The Independent Culture

When a work gets a smart premiere followed by decades of oblivion, it is usually for a good reason. So it is all the more surprising that Elizabeth Maconchy's one-acters, The Sofa and The Departure, should prove to have such fresh and timeless appeal. And it's appropriate that Independent Opera should choose Maconchy's centenary year to exhume them at Sadler's Wells, since this is where they saw the light of day in, respectively, 1959 and 1962.

Born in Broxbourne and tutored by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maconchy came of age as a composer in Prague, where her piano Concertino was premiered by Erwin Schulhoff, and the music of Janacek got under her skin. Chamber music was her thing, and she came late to opera. The Sofa has a crazy plot: a rich young rake is turned, by his witch-grandmother, into a sofa, in which guise he is condemned (literally) to support the seduction of his girlfriend.

The party that the director Alessandro Talevi and designer Madeleine Boyd devise as the framework for this event is very Noughties Hoxton, as are its louche denizens. Everyone on stage looks good, acts well, and sounds marvellous: the principal roles are played to the hilt by the tenor Nicholas Sharratt and that sparky soprano Sarah Tynan. The way Sharratt morphs into his own sofa is ingenious; under Talevi's direction, everything joyfully bursts the bonds of decorum, with the ubiquitous coupling at once comic and indecently real.

But the cleverest thing about this production is the way it goes with the flow of the music. Maconchy's score is vocally demanding but unfailingly melodious, and vividly evokes character and situation: when the hero is released from bondage, the music becomes all weird and Star-Treky.

But if the spirit of Janacek is often discernible in The Sofa, it hovers more explicitly over The Departure. I won't reveal the twist that makes this two-hander so spooky: suffice it to say that when the truth dawns, the music really does send shivers down the spine. With heroic performances by Louise Poole and Hakan Vramsmo, and exemplary work by Dominic Wheeler's chamber ensemble, it's congratulations all round.

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